Buying local fruits and veggies at a farmers’ market is a popular trend today. Browsing through a farmers’ market provides shoppers with bountiful, fresh produce and the opportunity to speak firsthand with local farmers. This is a win-win for consumers – they can purchase fresh, healthful produce for their families and simultaneously learn more about farming.
Those who visit farmers’ markets regularly often have developed a list of their favorite vendors. But if this is a new shopping experience or if you are exploring a market you haven’t visited before, there are some things to consider when choosing a vendor to ensure that the food you buy is grown safely and in a responsible manner.
Part of the fun of shopping at a farmers’ markets is meeting the people who are actually involved in growing your food. Unfortunately, there have been incidents where vendors purchase produce from another source and then sell them as their own. So, consider asking some general questions about the farmer and the farm, for example:
- How long have they been farming?
- Where is the farm located?
- When were the fruits and veggies harvested?
By just asking a few simple, polite questions, consumers can quickly tell if the vendor is knowledgeable about the food he/she is selling. And, consumers may learn some interesting farming facts as well, which adds to the overall shopping experience at a farmers’ market.
Many statements are often made at farmers’ markets, like “certified organic” or “pesticide free.” But what do those statements really mean? Let’s start with “certified organic.” Organic certification is a rigorous process and the farmer must undergo regular audits to ensure that he/she is, in fact, farming to the organic standard, as established by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organics Board. If a farmer is certified as organic then they will have documentation verifying this or will be able to tell you about the comprehensive process. So, if you see a “certified organic” statement and have some concerns, consider asking:
- How long has your farm been certified organic?
- What does it take to become certified organic?
- Why is it important to be certified organic?
If a vendor makes claims about being “pesticide free,” it may be wise to ask what that really means. Since both organic and conventional farmers use registered and approved pesticides when other pest and disease control strategies fail, a claim of “pesticide free” may need further explanation. (Shoppers should also be aware that if a vendor states he/she is “certified pesticide free” that no official government-sanctioned certification exits for this designation.) So, consider asking a “pesticide free” vendor:
- Does “pesticide free” mean you don’t spray anything at all on your crops? (Keep in mind the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of a “pesticide” is “any substance or mixture of substances (natural or synthetic) intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pests.)
- What do you do to control pests and diseases? (Listen for knowledgeable comments about the use beneficial insects, pheromone traps, crop rotation, irrigation management.)
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Unlike fruits and vegetables grown and sold to your local grocery stores, fruits and veggies sold at farmers’ markets are often unregulated and even exempted from food safety regulations. While foodborne illness outbreaks associated with farmers’ markets are rare, they have occurred. Therefore consumers who are concerned about food safety, may want to consider asking the vendor a couple of questions like:
- What food safety practices do you use on your farm?
- Do you test your irrigation water for safety?
- What type of fertilizers do you use? (Note that manure should be properly composted since raw manure can pose a food safety risk).
- Do you keep animals and livestock away from your fields?
These suggested questions are quite similar to those asked by local grocery stores and restaurants of the farmers who supply their fruits and vegetables. Most stores require water testing, documentation of fertilizers used, organic certification documentation, documentation of worker safety and hygiene standards, etc. to protect their consumers and ensure they receive the safest foods possible. Most stores also mandate that conventional and organic farms are regularly audited to ensure compliance with food safety standards. Farmers who sell to local grocery stores are subject to stringent government laws and regulations regarding any pesticide usage which are verified through enforcement measures and federal and state product sampling programs. Vendors selling at farmers’ markets may not be subject to the same scrutiny by a buying entity or the government, therefore shoppers may want to ask just a few of these questions to learn more about how the food is produced.
Buying from farmers’ markets is an enjoyable and satisfying shopping experience. Asking questions provides a wonderful opportunity to learn more about how food is grown and really connect with local farmers. These conversations will hopefully help you to develop your own “favorite vendor” list.